Brenda Tremblay: A celebrity on Rochester’s WXXI FM airwaves, she is rooted in her beloved Brockport

By on January 7, 2019
Brenda Tremblay sits at the organ in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Brockport where she is the organist and choir director. “It was never my ambition to become a musician,” she said, “I became a musician by accident” which occurred at St. Luke’s attending a worship service. Photo by Dianne Hickerson

Brenda Tremblay sits at the organ in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Brockport where she is the organist and choir director. “It was never my ambition to become a musician,” she said, “I became a musician by accident” which occurred at St. Luke’s attending a worship service. Photo by Dianne Hickerson

Brenda Tremblay has enjoyed her life. She speaks fluently about it, with wit and wisdom, reflecting on how many odd circumstances brought her to the present. The present moment was our interview at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Brockport where she is organist and choir director. How she ended up here is one branch of her story. Another branch is her career at WXXI FM in Rochester where she hosts a classical music program. Then, how did this public radio celebrity on Rochester’s airwaves end up in Brockport living by the canal? Sorting it out is fascinating.

Entering Public Radio – Applied “On a whim” and hired “On the spot.”

Brenda gets up at 4 a.m. each weekday to host “Classical Music with Brenda Tremblay” (Monday through Friday, 6 to 10 a.m. on WXXI-FM 91.5, WXXY 90.3, WXXI-FM/HD 91.5-1). “Brenda’s mission is to infuse your morning routine with the beauty and light of classical music,” the web site says. She usually gets home around 1 p.m. and goes to bed early. She has made good use of her short day, having raised children now ages 18, 20, and 22.

Asked how she got into public radio, she revealed one of those odd circumstances impacting her life.

I was going to be a teacher. Just graduated from college with a degree in High School English and Education, I sent out teaching resumés. On a whim I sent a letter to WXXI. I had listened to the station at college and had a little bit of college radio experience. I went in for an interview and they hired me on the spot. Then, the more I got into it, the more I loved the mission of public radio, the respect for humanity, the love of the arts, intelligent conversation and debate, all of it. 

How did she become familiar with classical music? “I grew up in a home where we all made music and talked about it. I took piano lessons for six years. My mom was often playing Beethoven on the piano. She, my father and I sang for many years in the Rochester Oratorio Society and Eastman Rochester Chorus. Being naturally conversational about music is a big part of my job now.” A college semester in London added to her awareness of classical music, going to Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House, the English National Opera, and recitals at Wigmore Hall.

Brockport – Near old roots and growing new ones

Brenda grew up in Albion and attended Houghton College in Houghton, New York. After a semester in London, she returned to Houghton and got married. In 1992, “We decided to move to Brockport where my husband wanted to study for his Master’s degree. My extended family (parents, brother, sister) lives in Albion. We like to joke that my husband and I are foreigners living across the county line.”

A book she read helped her affirm Brockport was the place to be. When she started working for public radio and living briefly in Rochester, she read a book by James Kunstler called The Geography of Nowhere. It was about how Americans were building cities and communities that were hostile to pedestrians, she said. And, she continued…

He talked about having a rich full life being able to walk on a sidewalk in front of your house, walk to a coffee shop, walk to a hospital, or get a bag of groceries without having to drive 10 miles. We were building an infrastructure of this country which required you to have a car. It was sucking up our lives and our resources in some communities more than others. And, reading that book, it made me want to live in a community where we could walk to places … and give kids a $5 bill and let them free range walk to the grocery store and get a gallon of milk. It was really important for us to settle where we had more time for ourselves and weren’t just driving around all the time.

The book intellectually encouraged the planned move. And, one of her walks from her home near Corbett Park was to the hospital to give birth to her son, Gavin. “I was just starting into labor,” she said. “It was a balmy September day. The neighbors were in disbelief.” She delivered her other two children there, but after her husband drove her.

Brenda names some favorite places on Main Street in the village. “I love Java Junction. My kids love Jimmy Z’s, and we are getting to know the Custom House pub and bar and Piccolo Bistro. Of course, we have the last general book store in the county (Lift Bridge Book Shop). That’s really important; people don’t realize what a gem that is.” She enjoys the Christmas season in Brockport. “I love walking the streets and seeing houses lit up from the inside with the glow of their trees. Very beautiful.”

Brenda has followed The College at Brockport’s evolution and adds it to her observations of her hometown. “I am astonished at how the university has developed in the last few years, having put millions of dollars in renovations of buildings… just smart decisions about landscaping and design. I love their newest project where they created a sweep of grass down to the Fine Arts Center. And, there is a kind of serpentine spine that runs through the whole university planted with yellow magnolia trees — just stunning.”

Becoming a Musician – “By accident” at St. Luke’s

Brenda and her family first started attending St. Luke’s because of that semester in London. She had attended Sunday services and concerts at Westminster Cathedral and “fell in love with the Anglican Church tradition – the music and poetry of the Book of Common Prayer.” Moving to Brockport, “We started going to St. Luke’s. The music was fantastic. I joined the choir briefly singing for fun, but not making serious music in any way. I was really into my job in public radio,” she said. But she eventually did get serious, becoming organist and choir director.

How did she become a musician on the keyboards and director of a choir? “It was never my ambition to become a musician; I was too lazy to practice.” She majored in English at Houghton, not music. “I became a musician by accident,” she said.

That accident was another one of those odd circumstances in her life’s path. Attending St. Luke’s sixteen years ago, she observed Father David Robinson “trying to lead the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace” without the organist who had just left. I was sitting in the pew and my finger tips tingled; it was just magical, giving me some kind of message.” After the service she went up to Father David and recalls saying, “‘I used to take piano lessons and I could bang out the hymns.” After offering to play hymns the next Sunday, Father Robinson gave her a hymn book and three hymns on a Post-It note. It had been almost 10 years since she had played the piano, after about six years of playing a lot. “I practiced and practiced. I came back the next Sunday, and I remember my hand was shaking.” She survived that test and went on to direct the choir accompanied by the organ or piano.

How did she know how to direct a choir? She never had formal conducting lessons. “I had sung for the Rochester Oratorio Society for almost 20 years. So, I watched and learned by example from Director Roger Wilhelm; he was my first guide.”

And becoming the organist? “To be honest, I am a pianist who learned to play the organ well enough to support congregational singing. I studied briefly with Nancy Woodworth-Hill, former music director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Greece. During most services I switch back and forth from piano to organ, depending on the style of music.”

Brenda concluded, “I feel fortunate to be able to make music at St. Luke’s. The ancient Greeks were suspicious of musicians, thinking they were wizards, able to control people’s emotions. It’s not a negative thing, just the magic they make. Music is a very powerful force in our lives. It makes me happy to be able to facilitate spiritual life in this small community of Brockport.”

Bill Plews is currently the Rector’s Warden in the Vestry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. He gives this perspective on Brenda’s powerful impact on church life:

Brenda is one of St. Luke’s greatest assets. She combines her love of music with her faith and devotion to her church. Our Sunday mornings are filled with joyous sounds and innovative approaches, often benefiting from guest musicians that Brenda invites to join us. St. Luke’s is a warm, inviting church with a Music Director who sets the tone. We are blessed.